In 1991 I was a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, six years into a program that was supposed to take four years. Completing the dissertation still seemed years away, and job prospects in my field looked bleak.
Walking into the office of my adviser, an atheist philosopher from New York and perhaps the most cynical person I’d ever met, I gave voice to my despair. He interrupted me: “I thought you Christians regarded hope as a virtue.”
His words shocked me. I had never thought of hope as a virtue, that is, as a character trait that can be cultivated by the things we pay attention to, the actions we undertake and the words we use. Instead, I had assumed hope and despair were simply conditions one fell into, emotional responses to situations and largely outside of one’s control.
I should have known better, for as soon as one begins paying attention to people, it is obvious that those who are hopeful are, as a general rule, no better off than those who are in the habit of complaining about things. It’s just that they see things differently, and that leads them to respond to situations and other people more positively.
My grandmother was a person of hope. She took to heart Paul’s assurance in his Letter to the Romans that “all things work together for good for those who love God.” This is a difficult passage if interpreted to mean that all one’s dreams will be realized. My grandmother’s dreams were certainly not realized, but she did not allow the disappointments to define her life.
She confirmed by example the distinction I learned much later, that hope is not the same as optimism. Hope is the conviction that things will turn out well in the end, but optimism is the idea that one’s plans will work out as expected. It is optimistic to think that I will win the lottery; it is hopeful to be assured that, whether I win the lottery or not, things will nevertheless turn out well.
My grandmother’s hope found expression in loving service to others. She knew that love of God must be practically expressed through acts of hospitality. She delighted in holidays, which provided the opportunity to entertain guests. And she was attentive to rituals, regarding them as gifts from generations past, providing forms of social interaction that could be modified and adapted, but never abandoned. Over the years, this had resulted in a life rich in relationships, though poor in material goods.
In speaking to young people today, I find a great deal of anxiety about the future. And they have much to concern them: environmental degradation, global warming, nuclear meltdowns, economic recession, war. But mainly they worry about stepping into a world of mean-spiritedness, in which those in charge don’t care enough about them to ensure that they will have a welcome role in society.
It seems to me that our chief responsibility to young people is not to engage in a politics of despair, but to hold onto the forms of conduct that allow civil society to flourish: respect in the ways we address one another; truthfulness in words and actions; and a sincere commitment to the common good.
Whenever we treat one another with incivility because we are more concerned with obtaining immediate goals rather than preserving the integrity of relationships, we deprive our children of the hope that is their proper inheritance.
Shortly before my grandmother passed away, she discussed her funeral arrangements. Her chief concern was leaving enough money to provide a good meal after the ceremony. And then she instructed, “Be sure to have white linen on the tables.” She didn’t want her final guests to think she didn’t care about them.
The Ethical Life is a series of reflections on the ways ethical thinking influences our actions, emotions and relationships. Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University.